Science Olympiad Advice

Recent­ly, a top­ic came up on scioly.org: “Is Sci­ence Olympiad worth it?” A frus­trat­ed stu­dent was down on his luck with his team at a com­pe­ti­tion, and got all exis­ten­tial… sort of. As I thought about my reply, it grew and grew, and soon it wasn’t a sim­ple answer to his ques­tion any more, but it seems advice for any­one doing Sci­ence Olympiad (“SO,” “Sci­Oly”). This was my respon­se:

Every­one else seems to have cov­ered the team aspect of SO, but my expe­ri­ence was quite dif­fer­ent. I wasn’t on super com­pet­i­tive teams, I’ve nev­er been to Nation­als, and I nev­er had a coach for my events.

What I got out of SO was expe­ri­ence, the expe­ri­ence, and expe­ri­ences. When I first joined scioly.org, which is not long after I start­ed doing Sci­ence Olympiad, I was of course very young. 🙂 I joined so I could find out more about Wright Stuff. I post­ed dumb posts, I didn’t always read or search before post­ing, and I even spammed. It took a long time for me to real­ly get straight­ened out, but now I’m admin (a fact I still find shock­ing). But the point is, spend­ing time with my two ter­ri­fic teams and a com­mu­ni­ty like this actu­al­ly helped me grow up.

I also learned a good 80% of what I know about build­ing things, every­thing about elec­tron­ics, and a lot about com­put­ers from SO work. For exam­ple, just on this forum there was a lit­tle inci­dent where I tried to imi­tate rel­pats-eht‘s avatar. It taught me a bunch about image com­pres­sion, mak­ing ani­mat­ed GIFs, and image palettes. Now I’m work­ing in and study­ing com­put­er graph­ics; I might even make it my liv­ing.

It wasn’t just tech­ni­cal stuff I learned. One of the more use­ful skills I learned was how to learn. More specif­i­cal­ly, how to learn when you’re not in school and you have no teacher. I nev­er had a coach that knew my events bet­ter than I did, and in high school, I didn’t have a coach at all; it was a whol­ly stu­dent-run team. Every­thing about SO I learned I had to learn on my own from scioly.org, books, and any­thing else I could get my hands on. This left me the ques­tion of sum­mers.

I loved SO. But there were no rules out in the sum­mer. One might think, naïve­ly, that he should spend the sum­mer build­ing to the pre­vi­ous season’s rules. No. First off, it’s impor­tant to take a vaca­tion. Get some down­time, even if it’s less appeal­ing than SO because of your burn­ing lust for win­ning next year (which you should def­i­nite­ly have).

Then, my project for the sum­mer would have noth­ing to do with SO at all, and would be as dif­fi­cult and time-con­sum­ing (and more!) than the sum­mer or my expe­ri­ence could pos­si­bly afford. My three sum­mer projects in high school were, in reverse order: (1) Put a vision-based guid­ance sys­tem for my robot­ics heli­copter (2) Build a quadro­tor heli­copter while hack­ing OS X to run on PCs (3) Build a quadriped robot.

I almost nev­er got the projects done by the time school start­ed; we NYC kids got stuck with the same school sched­ule as upstate NY kids, minus the not insignif­i­cant snow days, hav­ing had per­haps two of those in my ten years of ser­vice under the NYCDOE. So we had very short sum­mer vaca­tions.

Still, what­ev­er it was I did in the sum­mer, I was guar­an­teed that I could suc­cess­ful­ly use it in the next sea­son. If you spent the sum­mer build­ing a bet­ter bat­tery-and-motor cart with wheels, you might learn how to make your next cart go straighter and truer. You spend the sum­mer build­ing a robot­ic heli­copter, or even try­ing to build a robot­ic heli­copter, and you’ll learn how to design your next cart in 3D para­met­ric CAD, pre­ci­sion machine it from impact-resis­tant PETG, and code a pro­por­tion­al con­trol loop for its C-pro­grammed micro­con­troller so you can hit arbi­trary run times, dis­tances, and tar­gets just by punch­ing in num­bers. And do it cheap­ly too; my par­ents are not wealthy and didn’t real­ly like me spend­ing mon­ey on robots. 🙂

When you have off time, don’t waste it on work; do some­thing you absolute­ly nev­er thought of doing, but that you might like. Sing, play Ulti­mate with your team, try to increase the def­i­n­i­tion of your abs. At some point, I was fig­ur­ing out how to keep as accu­rate time as pos­si­ble. It net­ted me a neat watch and knowl­edge I was proud of. Then it got turned into an event. bah got me to start play­ing with foun­tain pens. My first foun­tain pen ever will be in my hand in a few days.

And final­ly to cap this post, which has wind­ed far too ver­bose already, I learned qual­i­ty from SO. You know the real dif­fer­ence between a fam­i­ly-owned Ger­man com­pa­ny and a Chi­ne­se man­u­fac­tur­ing mega-cor­po­ra­tion? The Ger­man com­pa­ny tries to cre­ate a qual­i­ty pro­duct and lets it attract the mon­ey. The Chi­ne­se cor­po­ra­tion looks to the bot­tom line first—quality comes sec­ond (or even lat­er than that). Qual­i­ty needs to come first in SO, and the medals will fol­low nat­u­ral­ly.

I built with more qual­i­ty than was need­ed in the first place. My descrip­tion of the afore­men­tioned “cart” was of my 2009 Elec­tric Vehi­cle. It was pret­ty overkill, to be hon­est, con­sid­er­ing I didn’t expect my team to make it beyond NY states (it didn’t). How­ev­er, it worked out pret­ty well. I beat FM with a gold medal and they got sec­ond in EV at Nation­als, so it was like I got sec­ond at Nats (I didn’t).

Some­times it doesn’t work out. My Wright Stuff planes in 2007 used rolled tubes and were biplane designs. I was real­ly ambi­tious and didn’t com­plete­ly know what I was doing. Yet some­how, all the tubes I rolled that year had zero cur­va­ture. That is sim­ply mag­i­cal, if you under­stand what I’m talk­ing about. They real­ly didn’t end up fly­ing all that well, though that may be because I was spend­ing less time on WS that year than before, but they were but­ter­fly impres­sive. I was proud of my planes even if they didn’t net me the medal which I wasn’t aim­ing for in the first place. Heck, my states plane from that year is still the exam­ple pho­to on the Wright Stuff Wiki.

I won either way, because qual­i­ty was on my side, because I knew I grew up on it all, and because I knew more than the suck­ers who didn’t do SO. So if you’re a senior this year, don’t feel like you have to win and cap your career with a bang. Go to com­pe­ti­tion with open eyes and make some mem­o­ries while you rem­i­nis­ce on the good times past. All my team­mates know as well as I do I got that gold medal car­ing zero about it (most­ly because of get­ting reject­ed from MIT days before, but also for all the rea­sons I men­tioned above). Don’t for­get to wipe your tears when you take your bus home—or plane, car, train, boat…